I was shaken out of my reverie where I heard the loud ghonta and shaankh in the wee hours of dawn. It had drizzled the night before, and the cold and dampness in the air made me want to cocoon myself tighter. Shaking off the remnants of sleep, I tried to bring my world into focus again. Apparently, I was no longer in Calcutta, a city where I spent a significant amount of my youth. I was in the U.S. of A., a home away from home, where the heart of Ma Durga beats in a nostalgically similar, yet a painfully different rhythm.
My cousin texted me “Shubho Mahalaya” the other day. It is that time of the year when Ma Durga, her children, and Mahishasura are busy getting spruced up for Pujo. However, Pujo is a different story in this country. Ma Durga’s calendar has been modified for years to suit that of her devotees for the probashi (NRI) Bangali in the US. She visits home not per the tithis of the calendar, but during the weekends, and in the vicinity of community colleges and high school buildings instead of paara, goli, or raasta. Thakur dekha (also known as, pandal hopping) is no longer an activity I associate with hours of walking, standing in lines, brazening the sweltering heat or the torrential downpour that is so characteristic of the pujo-scape in Calcutta. It was refreshing to see such energy reflected everywhere during pujo. I saw it in the faces of people excitedly asking friends and neighbors, “Kawta jaama holo?” (How many sets of new clothes did you buy or were gifted this season?).The real reason of the question was not really to know how many sets of clothes you acquired, but to open up the discussion about all the great places to shop, not to mention announcing to the world of your own count of clothes. I saw it in the scaffolds of the still incomplete puja pandals. I saw it in those craftsmen working diligently to add the final touches of paint on Ma Durga. The otherwise ill-reputed as “dead” city pulsates with life. The smell of pujo permeates the air- a smell characterized not just by the dhup-dhuno, but by puppy love blossoming in every paara or goli, the enthusiasm of shoppers amidst the crazy stampeding, the smell of roadside phuchka and chicken roll, the heart beating to the rhythm of the dhaak, and by loudspeakers blaring anything from “Anjali Mantra” to “Bangla adhunik gaan”, “tu cheez badi hai mast mast” for the braver communities, or “twinkle twinkle little star” recited in monotony by a 4-year old rising star during those “kalcharal nights” organized by her father who also happens to be the secretary of the local pujo’r committee.
Things look somewhat similar here, albeit in a more controlled and otherwise monotonous fashion. You could identify a pujo-hosting high school after hours of being lost in the Amazon rainforests, if only you could find that telltale parking lot filled with the Hondas and the Toyotas mostly in shades of black, blue, or silver. As you shut off the car ignition and adjust your Baluchori sari and the kundan necklace after undoing the seatbelt, other telltale signs clue you in to the venue of the pujo. Mr. Software Sen, otherwise seen in his checkered shorts and Google tee shirt with a cuppa Starbucks coffee as he drives his blue Lexus to office every morning, is spruced up in his dhuti and tussar panjabi and neatly combed hair parted sideways, dutifully handing out lunch coupons and talking unsuspecting and stray pandal hoppers into buying their annual Bangali association membership. Mrs. Anima(ted) Sen, looking straight out of the sets of the movie Devdas in her cream and red sari and her vermilion headed, kohl-smeared eyes and Ma-Kali avatar, chats animatedly about their trip to Greece earlier in summer to spend their 10th wedding anniversary, urging her
bored audiences kitty party pals to check out her Facebook album now replete with “wow” comments and XOXOXOXOs. On a different note, it took years for a dehati-to-the-American-culture like me to figure out that those “showered with love” XOXOXOs found in abundance on Facebook are in no way related to the “kaata-kuti” criss-cross board games you played as a middle school student when the teacher did not make it to class. However, I digress here. The Khokon Shonas and Mamonis are running around in their Baby GAP sweatshirts or Dora pink frilly frocks and Stride Rite shoes. They are happily chomping on their pijjas and Mc Dee burgers especially ordered off the kids menu, because they have been universally stereotyped by their parents to lack the digestive system hardy enough to digest khichuri bhog. Important discussions are churning in the name of socializing and networking- I overhear a group of balding, middle-aged, and bespectacled dadas discussing Green Cards and citizenships, options for stock investment and mortgages, Xboxs andPSP3s, Kinects and Builds, or the awaited deals for the upcoming Thanksgiving Black Friday sales. The mashimas and boudis enthusiastically discuss clothing and jewelry, juicy Facebook gossip, impending annual visits of in-laws, the newest desi store selling Tyangra maach and frozen Lyangra aam, and the awesome videos of their Khokon shonas eating organic strawberries in their Bumbo seats. A bunch of young people form a visibly distinct sub-group – the “fresh off the boat” graduate students, enthusiastically discuss research agenda, upcoming conference deadlines, and demanding advisors, definitely lacking the visible traits and polish of the nouveau riches from the east now living over a decade in this country.
However, no matter how sardonically you choose to look at the Americanized version of Durga Pujo, this is the best you are going to get here. No wonder we convince ourselves over time that there is an undeniable magic, an aura even amidst talks of green cards and Tiffany’s jewelry, our mashima who is visiting her son and his family from Borishal proudly beaming, “amar naati you ass citigen” (My grandson is a US citizen). Our pujari moshai is an investment banker, dutifully chanting mantras, the sacred thread and dhoti a far cry from his menacing corporate look. The dhaaki starts to play the dhaak at some point, ushering people for the session of onjoli, picking up fistfuls of yellow lilies and carnations bought from Trader Joe’s. As usual, I experience the all familiar feeling of getting gooseflesh, tapping my feet to the beat of the dhaak. My blood rings and my soul sings to the beats of the drum. A strange magic suffused with nostalgia fills the air. Durga Pujo will remain a unique celebration for me, incomparable with the pumpkin carvings during Halloween, or the turkey roasting during Thanksgiving. I am shaken out of my reverie yet again when a GAP wearer less than half my height innocuously bumps into me, running around in excitement, followed by his hapless dad who reminds me of a pet trainer. It is the same man who was conversing in Bengali, and now, he is running after his son not with the typically what you would expect “jaashna, jaashna, orey khoka firey aaye” (Come back dear son, don’t scamper around), but with a trained and somewhat accented monosyllabic “Don’t run, come back, sit down, eat your pizza !!”, instructed in a fake accent perhaps for the benefit of the scampering kid who might not understand a word of Bangla spoken at home. I see that “Kaan mola khabi” has been aptly replaced by “You will be grounded!!”.
Somewhere in between my present and my past, in between the uloos (the sounds you make flicking your tongue) and the shaankh (conch shell), I am transported to a different era, awash with joyous anticipation. I am 6 years old and am wearing a bright blue frock my parents bought me from the neighborhood garment store. Then I am a 20 year old, wearing a bright green silk sari that belongs to my mother, that she has painstakingly wrapped around me, safety pins and all. I am with my friends pandal hopping in Madox Square, enlivened by the dazzling beauties exchanging hushed glances and sheepish smiles with the handsomely spruced up pajama-panjabi clad group of young men who have spent the last hour or so visually appraising the chicks (an act also known as jhaari maara). So many love relationships form and dissipate in the vicinity of the pandals by the grace of Goddess Durga every year. While most never make it to the altar, an innocuous glance exchanged or that racing of heart beats as you eyed a bunch of decked up people from the opposite gender works wonders in your otherwise drab life marred by academic pressures, social expectations, and what not. I flip between the past and my 30-year old present, casually glancing around me to look in vain for the now-extinct group of good looking and single men roughly my age. A corpulent mashima just stepped on my sari (and my toes), glaring unapologetically at me for intercepting her trajectory as she walks by. She is the same mashima, I recognize, who was animatedly boasting about her sonny boy studying electrical engineering at MIT. I sigh, zoning out of my surroundings for the moment and focusing on the beauty of Ma Durga’s face instead. Of all the things that have changed around me (for better or for worse) in the last few decades of my pujo experience, people, social dynamics, pompousness and all, Ma Durga is the only one who has not changed, still looking as young and stunning as she used to for as long as I can remember. So beautiful, so powerful, yet so very feminine. The only thing that brings in unalloyed joy for me is the visage of Ma Durga and her children. And the smell of pujo. Not to mention the music of the dhaak. Or sometimes the familiar feeling of excitement I used to have as a kid as I marveled at the six packs and brawns of the demon Mahishasura.